Wednesday, July 23, 2008

And then the deer came...

Here are a couple of pictures of the potato patches after I thoroughly weeded and carpet bombed them with straw mulch.  I'd have to say the mulching process was strenuous, tedious, exacting, and dirty.  You can't just fork it on, it has to be tucked around the plants so there's a lot of bending and straightening of the spine.  I had to wear a dust mask as I'm slightly allergic to mold and pulling the straw apart released huge clouds of it.  I guess the saving grace of mulching over weeds versus hoeing them out is that you shouldn't have to do it as often, but maybe next year I'll try hoeing instead.

West patch:

East patch:

They were looking pretty good but shortly after this the deer started munching.  As of yesterday they had eaten the tops off more than half of the east patch.  At Flora's suggestion I sprayed fish hydrolisate which if I'm lucky will foliar-feed the plants and make them untasty to the dratted herbivores.  Why they are picking on my plants when there's zillions of others all over the place I'm sure I don't know.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Energy Independence Week, Day 7

Thursday, July 10, the last full day of Energy Independence Week.

I had a little open house to show the Hunt Utilities Groupies how it went.  Just to review, I observed Energy Independence Week by

a) Using no electricity from the grid
b) Burning no fossil fuel, and
c) Making no trips to the grocery store (stocking up ahead of time okay).

The idea being to learn preparedness for both disaster-type emergencies and for the Long Emergency of transitioning to the post-fossil-fuel world.

I think my response was a pretty realistic combination of partial preparation in advance, and hasty improvisation.  I had purchased a few solar panels months ahead of time, and asked for a quote on a battery-based solar electric system design.  I measured the power requirements of everything in the house and was pretty sure that a 500 watt system would be able to run the well pump, the fridge, and a few other things.  I hoped to get it for $5000 and have it installed in time for 4th of July week.  I also expected that the half-built solar water heating system (a Redbeard project) would be completed (it is now 101 days late (and counting)).  I had acquired a charcoal grill, a woodburning camp stove, and a solar oven, so I could cook without propane or electricity.

But, come the day, there was no solar hot water, and the quote for the fully pimped solar electric system had only just come in - at over $13000.  I almost bailed on the Energy Independence project but decided if I could just get water and power to the toilet (which has its own pump) I would go through with it.  A couple of deep-cycle marine batteries ($185) and a 1000 watt car inverter ($60) made enough power to operate the pump.  For the water I set up a rain barrel on a platform about five feet high and plumbed it into the house via a garden hose through the window.  A rain barrel was on the long term plan anyway, and there just happened to be a 300 gallon plastic tank and a platform for it lying around. Stocking up ahead of time, I pumped 150 gallons into it from the well.  This gave low-pressure water to the sinks and toilet, but it wasn't high enough to feed the shower head.  I guessed about right on the water, I had about 30 gallons left at the end of the week, so, about 20 gallons a day.

I did have my four motley solar panels which I figured I could somehow use to recharge the batteries, but I knew there was no way they would supply enough energy to run the fridge, so I hastily built a large outside cooler/icebox out of scrap SIPs, and loaded it with as much ice as I could keep frozen ahead of time in my regular freezer.  That ended up lasting six days, I was pretty happy with that.

This icebox I also hope will be useful longer term, either as a root cellar or as an icebox per se.  When I did my electrical load plan for the PV system, the fridge was the largest single remaining energy-consumer after I eliminated all forms of electric heating.  It doesn't make much sense to spend a lot of electricity running a fridge indoors in a climate where it's below freezing half the year.  The long term plan is to use the outside cold for refrigeration either directly or by saving ice in the winter to use in the summer.  

So, my original plan was to have a 600 watt solar electric system which I estimated would be capable of producing about 100 kilowatt hours a month, 1/10 of the average US household.  That was going to cost over $10000.  What I ended up with for Energy Independence Week was only 1/10 of that - a 60 watt system costing under $1000 and producing 10 kWh a month, or 1 % of US average household.  Even that 1% is a boon if you prioritize it right. It was enough to run the compost toilet fan and pump so I didn't have to poop in a bucket.  It was enough to charge the phone and run the laptop computer, and provide a bit of light at night, watch DVD, amp some guitar. It might have been enough to run the well pump a little except that the necessary 120 to 240 v step-up transformer would have doubled the cost of the system.   It would not have been enough to run the hydronic circulation pump in the winter.   It was probably not enough to do laundry.  I have a pretty efficient front-loader but even so it takes about 1 kilowatt-hour per load.  I also didn't have enough water pressure.  

I chatted about this with Ms. Flora, who lived off-grid without running water for three years including raising her infant son, and with a guy, let's call him Longfellow, who came to our second Natural Step study circle meeting, who had lived off grid for many years.  It turns out Flora did laundry on the grid (at the laundromat.) She also mentioned the one thing she really missed at the cabin was a vacuum cleaner.  Longfellow had concluded that what he really needed electricity for was some lights and one half-horsepower motor that he could hook up to run a bunch of different things.  

Modern conveniences.  We've gotten used to making everything run off 120 vac.  I would suggest as a rough guide that the earlier an appliance was invented or let's say commercialized, the more worthwhile it will be to hang onto it in the low-energy future.  Don't throw the washer out with the Wii.  That's only a rough guide, obviously you'd better use LED lights instead of incandescent.  Also, while an electric dryer is normally a monster energy sucker, if you don't use the heat but only run it a few minutes on air fluff to keep the line dried things from coming out stiff as planks, it would be worth having.

A lot of what high-energy buys you is convenience, the ability to make what you want happen at any time, cold drinks, hot shower, whatever.  This past week I found there was just more overhead of daily living, and I had to plan ahead and pay more attention to the weather, especially for solar cooking and bathing in the river.  It wasn't bad at all really.  The first couple of days I spent a lot of time getting the solar panels wired up, but once that was working I had time during the day, which I mostly used to attend to the potato patch and ride bike.  It was a somewhat camping-like experience and I was using camping-like technology to deal with it, which is kind of rinky-dink.  The solar shower for example was just a plastic bag, I gave up on it.  Both times I tried to fill it, it sprang a leak.

Cooking was not convenient.  I ate more cold cereal and peanut-butter sandwiches than I had in years.  I lost weight (which is a good thing.)  Part of the inconvenience would be easily fixable:  the solar oven, grill, and wood stove all had to operate outside and the cooler was outside, but the utensils, dishes, and dry foods were all inside, so my kitchen was split in two pieces and I had to walk all the way around the house to get between them.  This could be fixed with better design.  On the other hand, there are a couple of pretty basic problems with solid fuel cooking - there's a lot of warmup time and it's difficult to regulate the heat.  Also wood and charcoal are high-carbon fuels and produce a lot more carbon monoxide than gas, so they have to be used outside or there has to be a flue vented to the outside.

Another thing I noticed is that the cottage is not that bright inside in the day, even with all the blinds up.  It could use a couple of those tube-skylights, strategically placed over the kitchen and bathroom sinks.

Let's see, I have a couple notes here about the water.  Having only low-pressure water, you naturally tend to use less when you're at the sink.  Also, it turned out that a lot of what I had been using the electrically-heated hot water for was just to temper the really cold groundwater.  Using room-temperature water from the outside tank I didn't feel the need for hot water so often.


I managed to cut my energy use to a small fraction of normal and not take too bad of a lifestyle hit, for a week, in the summer, with a cash outlay of about $750 for a small solar electric lashup, and some additional scrounging plus stocking up ahead of time on food, water, and ice, and avoiding laundry.  I was also sort of on vacation, or staycation, and spent some time working on the related food security project of growing potatoes.  

The next step up in Energy Independence would be to do this in the winter, or for longer, say from Christmas through New Year's.

It seems to me there's got to be a value engineering opportunity here to develop low-energy appliances that are in between the $75 camp stuff, and the $2500 full-featured high-efficiency stuff. In a sense, the sustainability you can buy off the shelf these days is the decadent sustainability, $2500 fridge, woodstove, washer with no loss of convenience. The $75 camping equipment also works but is noticeably less convenient. Where's the in-between $450 stuff that's somewhat convenient and super low energy? I hesitate to mention this but safety also costs. A lot of the cost of that pimped-out solar electric design was in making something that would work safely and automatically under all conditions.

* * *

I would like now to venture into a discussion of the wider context of what I'm doing.  Up to now I have mostly dealt with that by providing links to external articles written by more eloquent people.  I want to discuss it here directly to better organize some thoughts. There will be some foaming at the mouth.

The Natural Step and Transition Town movements seek to offer a positive vision for the post-fossil-fuel future.  I haven't read far into them yet but I think they are trying to do the same kind of thing I was this past week, that is, show how you can have a reasonably amenable life without using fossil fuel or relying for your basic needs on fossil-fuel powered global networks and franchises. That is great, we need practical ideas for technologies, deals, laws, attitudes and philosophies to address the mind-bogglingly large downside risk to our civilization, posed by the end of cheap oil.

What we do NOT need to do, in my view, is dissolve the United States, or outlaw money, or corporations, or anything like that.

Any discussion of sustainability must begin with a description of what we are doing that is unsustainable. I've noticed a tendency for these descriptions to wander off onto things that are just plain bad, and may be like symptoms or ripple effects but are not at the heart of unsustainability. Critics may bring up our unseemly materialism, unhealthy food, isolation, narcissism, unfulfilling occupations, overly centralized power. They make many good points, but because most people working on sustainability come from the political Left, what I consider to be valid and rational critiques are inextricably veined with the nihilistic rhetoric of the Hard Left that sees nothing worth saving in the American project and wants to chuck the whole thing. In favor of what I don't know, some kind of socialist utopia? This grates on me continually, it's not going to play down at the Legion see? and if you really want to sell sustainability in the mainstream I suggest you get Marx and Chomsky out of your head and tune out the tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists and the anarchists. They are off-point, let's get back to sustainability.

The Natural Step, Transition Town, Post-Carbon Institute and others speak of relocalization. There is a straightforward logic to this. The extremely globalized world order of the last twenty years was made possible by 1) the end of the Cold War and the subsequent Pax Americana, 2) the Internet and other advanced communication technology, and 3) cheap transportation. Because 95% of transportation is fueled by oil, leg 3 is now being kicked hard and globalization is about to shift into reverse, that is, relocalization. I remember a news story from a couple of years ago, a company that made safes in upstate NY had outsourced their manufacturing to China, but was bringing it back because even with gasoline at only $2.50 a gallon it didn't make sense to ship safes halfway round the world. There is much more of this to come, and we might as well get ahead of the curve. Strengthening local communities and local economies seems to be a most constructive response to the impending energy crisis, and one that could actually improve the tone of our culture. We may not have any money to buy any more fancy stuff, but we'll be able to count on each other for the things that really matter, so the hope goes. This makes a lot of sense to me and I fully support the idea of rebuilding resilient local communities. Again, nothing wrong with focusing on the upside of the future that way, but it's so often accompanied by one-sided bad-mouthing of our current culture and economic system. Everything about global trade, corporations, and capitalism gets tarred with a big black brush. This lacks nuance (a charge that progressives should be sensitive to.)

For example, let's talk about this corporation-as-psychopath meme that's going around.  Here's Wendell Berry:
A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance...It can experience no personal hope or remorse. No change of heart. It cannot humble itself. It goes about its business as if it were immortal, with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money.
This is hopelessly broad-brush.  I just disagree, it doesn't square with my experience at all.  I worked ten years for a corporation (Kodak).  From my point of view, a corporation is just a bunch of people trying to figure out how to make a living.  It's staffed and directed by people who can be held accountable.  Limited liability does not mean totally unaccountable.  For one thing, the bigger a pile of money it is, the higher it rises on the lawyer's watch lists.  A corporation with deep pockets is strictly contained within the law.  If it does anything actionable, high-powered lawyers will glom onto its face, burrow into its gut, and explode out of its chest with big toothy grins on their faces.  The legal climate is such that even tiny companies like the Green Scene organic produce don't dare remain unincorporated and infinitely liable, the partners could lose their houses.

For another thing, it matters a great deal how the corporation plays the game - positive, zero, or negative sum.  You can make money while creating or destroying real wealth, or by winning bets.  At Kodak we played a positive-sum game, that is, we were desperately trying to devise something that some one somewhere would find useful and be willing to buy.  Wall Street plays a zero-sum game.  In stock trading, some one wins, some one loses.  Health insurance companies and the Mafia play negative-sum, they make some money, cost everyone else a lot.  The choice of game is a human decision.  People can buy back their "moral allegiance" by changing jobs, which is what I did.  As for immortality, well, if the corporation is mortal then so are all the jobs at it.  The only hard-hearted thing I saw was from my perspective they boned a bunch of people out of their retirement.  You can see that's a tough call, it pits older employees vs. newer employees. The whole time I worked for Kodak, it was becoming a smaller pile of money and trying to pull out of the dive, because when you're out of money, you're out of business. It was like working on building a jet engine in the back of a plane in flight after the propellor had fallen off the front.  But I digress.

I've come to realize that there are mend-America leftists and end-America leftists.  It's often difficult to tell the difference, there's a lot of fellow-traveling and sometimes it turns out the some one who's actually working on mend-America is just spouting end-America rhetoric, inconsistently with their actions.  I want to tell them, be careful what you wish for.  

It's lonely being a Green Conservative.  I struggle with how to witness to people.  (Why aren't conservatives for conservation?  Why aren't liberals for free speech?)

I want to mend America, to save it. We are a threatened nation. Let me take a minute to recognize and celebrate some of the good things, ethos, and customs that we have in this country which is our home - things and customs which are at risk in this coming age of fossil-fuel depletion.

Kunstler says "The entropic mess that our economy has become is the final blowoff of late oil-based industrialism." I'm arguing that as such, the mess does not define our nation. There was an America before fossil fuels. The big cars and beefsteaks were nice sprinkles on the icing, but there are more important things, like, America is a place where you can be who you were really meant to be. Let's try and hold onto that shall we?

I hereby recognize and celebrate material prosperity. USA: all-time hands-down winner.

I am well aware that materialism and consumerism have been shifting into ever higher gears since the early 20th century, finally spinning out of control into affluenza. Franklin Roosevelt tried to remind depression-era voters that there was more to life than stuff - "the current crisis concerns, thank God, only material things" words to that effect. Louis Rukeyser said something similar on his Wall Street program after I think it was the 1987 market crash - "it's only your money, not your life." Right today there's still a lot of fluff and frivolity in our economy, we haven't even begun to pinch pennies the way they did in the Depression.

Well said, Frank and Lou, nevertheless (point of nuance), up to a certain point, money can buy happiness, and the pursuit of happiness is one of our inalienable rights. What's-their-names, the voluntary simplicity people, came up with a definition of money that was something like: the stored life energy of people, or, something you trade your life energy for. It takes money to feed the hungry, remove the cataracts, cure the Lyme disease. We are material beings, some degree of materialism is not optional, some additional is not greedy.

Jim Kunstler himself, the original Mr. Suburbia-Sucks, does a pretty fair job of listing the modern conveniences, medical miracles, and "all the precious cargo of human culture" that the fossil fuel age has brought us, and which is therefore at risk, shortly.  From the Long Emergency:
It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life. All the necessities, comforts, luxuries, and miracles of our time - central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lighting, cheap clothing, recorded music, movies, supermarkets, power tools, hip replacement surgery, the national defense, you name it - owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel. ... The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerizing contentment, that we ceased paying attention to the essential nature of these miraculous gifts from the earth: that they exist in finite, nonrenewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world.

Lately I am fascinated by what it must have been like to live in the early twentieth century when so many of the things we take for granted in our daily doings today had just come on the scene and established themselves as normal accessories to everyday life - the car, airplanes, household electricity, central heating, skyscrapers, radio, motion pictures, hot water on demand, X-rays. How modern it all must have seemed in 1924, when most adults could still remember a world of horse-drawn carriages, outhouses, kerosene lamps, and Saturday night baths!...How amazing it must have been to witness everyday life improving so dramatically, and how this procession of marvels must have induced people to think that the human race was moving toward exactly the sort of perfection that the Enlightenment philosophers had promised. The most astonishing thing though, is how quickly we came to take these things for granted.

Everything characteristic about the condition we call modern life has been a direct result of our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have permitted us to fly, to go where we want to go rapidly, and move things easily from place to place. Fossil fuels rescued us from the despotic darkness of night. They have made the pharaonic scale of building commonplace everywhere. They have allowed a fractionally tiny percentage of our swollen populations to produce massive amounts of food. They have allowed us to develop industries of surpassing ingenuity...

The age of fossil fuels is about to end. There is no replacement for them at hand. ... A hopeful public, including leaders in business and politics, views the growing problem of oil depletion as a very straightforward engineering problem of exactly the kind that technology and human ingenuity have so successfully solved before, and it therefore seems reasonable to assume that the combination will prevail again. There are however, several defects in this belief.

The oil endowment was an extraordinary and singular occurrence of geology, allowing us to use the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Once it's gone it will be gone forever. Technology is just the hardware and programming for running that fuel, not the fuel itself...much of our existing technology simply won't work without petroleum, and without the petroleum "platform" to work off, we may lack the tools to get beyond the current level of fossil-fuel based technology...we have an extremely narrow window of opportunity to make that happen.

Based on everything we know right now, no combination of so-called alternative fuels or energy procedures will allow us to maintain daily life in the United States the way we have been accustomed to running it under the regime of oil.  We are in trouble.
You tell 'em Jim.  What I would like to suggest, is that the people of the US used their economic freedom and accountable political system along with fossil fuels, to invent and produce many things of real value, in addition to the mountains of trash and trivia.  I think it was the combination of freedom, responsibility, and fuel that made this possible.  

If Kunstler, Heinberg, Cohen, and the other peakniks are right, and I think they are, fifty years from now some one will write a Gone With the Wind novel about our time.  The book Gone with the Wind, even more than the movie, grieves for the Old South.  In our study circle, Longfellow spoke of the grieving process that people will have to go through.  Some of the material wonders on Kunstler's lists might not be worth grieving over if they are lost, but many are.

But what I really want to get to is that the fruits of the fossil fuel age go beyond these material wonders, and I say it is to our everlasting credit, even glory, as a civilization, that we chose to spend some of that sloshing oil wealth on them.  As I went through my Energy Independence Week, I started a little list entitled Things We Will Used to Have Been Able to Afford, Maybe.  I've already alluded to one of them above.
  • Safety regulations.  I mentioned about the cost of safety in solar electric system design.  As I understand it, the FAA has come to a very hard calculus on the cost of safety.  Because perfect safety costs infinite dollars and would ground the industry, they had to come up with a finite average value for a human life.  They chose one million dollars.  In the future, we might end up marking that down.  We might decide to accept 1940's-level idiot-proofing instead of 1990's-level idiot-proofing.
  • Careers for women outside the home.  Ever see that episode of 1900 house when they did the laundry, and it took all the women all day?  Single motherhood, living single, all practical impossibilities before modern conveniences.
    During the open house as I was mentioning about my increased workload of daily life, one of the Groupies, let's call her e-Moondog, commented that back in pioneer days, people didn't live single. One partner would work on the household chores while the other worked the forest or field. Still works that way in Amish country I presume. I know Jim Kunstler caught flak for depicting some return of traditional gender roles in his post-oil novel World Made by Hand. But I think there were practical reasons why the traditional division of labor worked the way it did.
  • Science, both the physics kind and the stamp-collecting kind.  In doing research for the site assessment part of my permaculture design, I found on the Minnesota DNR web site a trove of information about soils and plant communities all over the state, which must have taken many ranger-years of work to assemble.  That reminds me of another one:
  • Conservation laws.  We have them because people voted for them.  We have had money to spend on enforcing them.  Poaching is much less of a problem here than in other places where those things are not true.  The rangers and game wardens are going to be in a tough spot if freezing starving people head into the woods with saws and arrows.
  • Kunstler mentions recorded music and movies.  I can't believe he forgot Broadway, and to me the greater marvel is not the technologies but the sheer number of people who were able to have careers in the creative arts.  Without that oil-driven economy would we have the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the music of Ray Charles?  Maybe, since they were geniuses.  But what about the Eagles?  Carole King?  Eddie Rabbitt?  Livingston Taylor?  Suzie Quattro? Maybe not.
  • Honest cops and Attorneys General who answer the phone.  Why do you suppose it was, when the United moving truck showed up with the rest of my stuff last week, I didn't have to ransom my stuff from the driver or bribe Zack and Cody not to drop it?  Because United is a big company in a closely regulated industry.  Democracy breeds accountability, see how that works?  Of course its not perfect, don't get me started on Dish Network.  But I digress again.
I'm sure you could add more.  How about the 40-hour work week?

I hereby recognize and celebrate our nation's nonmaterial achievements.  Natural resources underlie them, but they flow from our values and institutions.  
All of these, worth grieving for, should they pass away.  Let us work to see that they do not.

Of course it's been a mixed bag.  Coal-fired electric power freed us from a lot of drudgerous daily physical labor.  Some people then worked even longer hours at high-stress nonphysical jobs.  Before machine power and safety inspectors, many people got swift tickets to old age through repetitive stress injuries and outright accidents.  With those greatly reduced, many proceeded to give themselves swift tickets to old age with gluttony and cigarettes.  In a free country not everyone's going to spend the "oil dividend" the way you might want them to.  (Mmmmm gluttony.)  But many people and companies did play the positive-sum game and created real wealth, cultural treasures, and public goods.  

If you tell me you don't care for Bush/Clinton America, nor for Gordon Gekko/Alex P. Keaton America, I'm like, yeah I see your point.  But what about Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper America?  or Jefferson/DeTocqueville America?  Something worthy there?  I don't think we need to invent a replacement for our nation, we need to appeal to its better nature.

As we relocalize let's not forget (point of nuance) the value of economies of scale, and of national unity.  I think it matters a great deal that there is a "we" and what we tell ourselves we stand for.  I believe the people who accomplished all I talked about above did so both because of natural resources and because they were walking around with "We are Americans. America equals life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, liberty and justice for all, all men are created equal" and so on, echoing around in their heads.  This was their mythology of America, in the Joseph Campbell sense of being an abstracted narrative which captures the meaning of what's going on.  Look, all history is mythology right?  No history book can list everything that everyone did.  In recent decades revisionist historians have been promulgating an alternative mythology of America that goes "America equals slavery, genocide, greed, corruption, and war."  In doing so they scrupulously cite facts so they can't be called liars, but it's clear that the intent of this negatory mythology is to undermine any sense of allegiance to America.  

(My turn to get out the broad brush :-)   It worked on Hollywood, which used to make moralistic movies from the perspective of the original mythology, movies that went:  "In a world where: this happened in America and it sucked, see?  It sucked because it was unamerican, see? So we should not put up with that."  Now they make movies from the perspective of the revisionist mythology which go:  "In a world where:  this happened in America and oh,migod, it sucked.  That's America for you, like, sucktastic.  Why would anyone want to call themselves an American?"  Big difference.

I guess what I'm trying to argue is, for this country at least, the best "platform" on which to build the post-fossil fuel order, is the American way.  It was conceived a hundred years before the oil age, fifty years before the coal age.  I think we can find in it, keys to the future.

I'm an engineer, not a historian or political scientist, but sustainability is patriotic to me.  That is why I quit my job, sold my house, joined Americorps, and worked on solar panels.  That is what Energy Independence Week is about.  Please join me for the next observance, to be announced.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Energy Independence Week, Day 6

Wednesday, July 9, day 6 of Energy Independence Week

In the morning the batteries were down to 12.3 v.  It seems to take almost a quarter of the battery capacity just to run the 5 watt compost bin fan all night.  The icebox was hanging in there at 43.5 degrees.

Cold cereal for breakfast again, and then it was off to weed and mulch the potato patches.  By 6:30 the cooler was up to 49 degrees, and all the two-liter bottles had thawed, so it was just the three blocks left.  It looked like there was a storm coming so I hustled down to the river for my daily swim.  On the way back I decided to cheat and buy some more ice at the gas station, two five-pound bags.  So the original charge of ice lasted six days seven nights.  I barely made it back before the rain started.  

I joined Flora's expedition to Farmer Dave's U-pick Strawberries along with Ranger K and young Skyler.  So, dinner was basically rain-washed strawberries off the vine.  That was nice, as was the rainbow which was so bright it almost touched the ground in front of the treeline.  Farmer Dave's mosquito herd made such a good living off me I started to wonder if his U-pick deal was a scam to produce a sustainable yield of mosquitos.

I've been meaning to mention how well the cottage is working temperature-wise throughout the spring and summer.  The space heater gave up the magic smoke back on June 5, when the daily average temperature was still well below room temperature.  I haven't needed any active heating or cooling since, nor even any fans.  I've been able to manage the temperature just by opening and closing windows.  The passive-solar overhang on the attached greenhouse is a key feature - back in the spring when the sun was lower in the sky it would shine into the greenhouse and I could pump heat into the house just by opening the connecting door.  I don't mind it warm so I would heat the place up to almost 80 during the day and let it cool off at night.  Now that it's summer I'm opening the windows at night and closing them during the day.  I was using the ceiling fan a lot during the spring but I shut it off for Energy Independence Week and haven't missed it.

There is maybe some controversy about whether thermal mass is useful in this climate.  The argument against goes something like this:  Many of the natural building methods feature thick heavy walls with lots of heat storage. But a lot of that comes from the desert southwest where the main problem is not the average outside temperature but the extreme day-to-night difference.  But in central Minnesota it can easily be cloudy for say the entire month of November, and it would take a ridiculous amount of storage mass to ride that out, something like full earth sheltering which nobody dares because it's so outre it has no resale value.  So forget thermal mass, build it light and very tight (like passivhaus.)

I was pretty sympathetic to this argument but I have to say from living in this cottage it is nice to have the massive walls.  At the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair there was a workshop on the subject.  The presenter argued basically that in the spring and summer in Minnesota, the heating and cooling problem is in fact a daily moderating problem, as in the desert, so thermal mass is useful in this climate for a good portion of the year.  

In other news, the experiment plots are showing some noticeable differences.  There's a pretty bright line between the all-compost plot and the compost-sawdust mixture.  Here's a couple of views of that.  The all-compost plot is basically to the left of the white door on the cottage there.

The compost-sawdust mixture is right now not even as good as the chiseled-but-unamended control plot, and the sawdust-only plot has only a little bit of stuff growing.

It didn't photograph that well but the left half of the picture is the compost-sawdust plot and the right half is the sawdust-only plot.
Here's the control plot:

The crater has developed a more verdant patch, on the north side east, closest to the piles of dirt that were pushed in to fill it.  There is some different stuff growing there but it looks to me like its just more fertile on that side.  

Energy Independence Week, Day 5

Tuesday, July 8, day 5 of Energy Independence Week

The batteries were down to 12.17 volts this morning, which is about 50% according to this chart from the Battery Book for Your PV Home:

12.60 100%
12.35 75%
12.15 50%
11.95 25%
11.85 discharged

This chart applies to 12v lead-acid batteries which have been sitting without charging or discharging for at least an hour.  I think it was the Skipper that told me even deep-cycle batteries shouldn't be discharged more than halfway, for longest life.  So I really needed to get them charged up.  I was able to get up to 6.5-7.5 amps from my mongrel solar array.  At 5 pm I took advantage of my lack of mounting racks to reposition the best panel facing west.  By 6:45 the batteries were back up to 12.53v.

This battery-based solar electric lashup cost about $750 altogether.  Nominally it's a 194 watt array but the most I've gotten out of it is 92 watts, due to the mismatched panel voltages. 

For breakfast I cooked up a cheese and lamb's quarters omelette on the woodgas camp stove.  I used pine lumber chunks about 1 inch big for fuel, kindled with fire starting cubes.  I only filled the stove halfway but that was still too much fuel.  Lunch was another peanut butter sandwich.  For dinner I reheated leftovers in the solar oven, along with some hot water for dishes.  The water supply was down to about 60 gallons at the end of the day, and the cooler was at 46 degrees, up about 1.

I've continued going down to the river in the evening for a dip. The first couple days it was like 85 degrees and the water was clear. The third day it was like 80 degrees and the water had some bits of algae in it. Today it was like 69 degrees and the water had algae, pine needles, and a small dead fish. Maybe the Lord is trying to toughen me up - maybe by Thanksgiving I'm supposed to cannonball through a half-inch of ice with a hearty rabble yell.

Ms. Flora stopped by in the evening to apply compost tea to the hazel seedlings and the potted bur oaks (I believe this is to promote root growth.)

You can see I'm having to regularly keep an eye on the water in the tank, the ice in the cooler, and the juice in the batteries.  I think this is good for putting you in touch with the general idea of thrift and conservation.  When you're plugged in, you don't see the coal mine or the aquifer being emptied, so what the heck, leave the sprinkler and the ceiling fan on.

As I wasn't messing with my infrastructure so much I had time during the day to work on weeding the potato patches.  I mentioned before how we ended up with the worst of both worlds there.  As I understand it, there are two basic approaches to weed control in gardens:  digging them out with a hoe, or smothering them with mulch.  We went with mulch, but the wheat straw I used was full of seeds which came up, so now I have to weed as well.

Potatoes have to be kept in the dark as the grow, or so I am told, they will become green and poisonous.  Again this can be done two ways, by hilling up dirt over them or adding more mulch.  After I get done weeding I have to add more mulch (Ms. Flora strongly advises me.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Energy Independence Week, Day 4

Monday, July 7, day 4 of Energy Independence Week

So after three days of cold cereal for breakfast I thought I'd try to make pancakes again using the woodgas camp stove. In my one previous attempt I kind of scorched'em.

I fueled the stove with cut up bits of cardboard standing on end, about 1x3 inches big, and kindled it with fire-starting cubes. That worked out perfectly, it was just the right amount of fuel for the job. I keep the stove's fan on low, and regulated the heat by taking the pan on and off the stove.

It was a cool morning and I really wanted some hot coffee now. I thought I'd see if the supposedly 1000 watt inverter would run the supposedly 750 watt coffeemaker. Sort of. The inverter overheated about halfway through the 10-cup cycle and had to rest. It was drawing 85 amps from the 12v batteries. Making one pot of coffee used about as much electricity as the compost bin fan running all day long - twenty-some amp-hours.  I decided I'd better wire up my fourth solar panel.  It has a crack in the back glass but I think it still works.

I mulched and watered the hazelnut trees.  That took awhile as I can only get one or two gallons a minute through the 250 ft hose from water "tower".  That put a big dent in the water supply.  I'm down to 80 gallons or so from the 150 I started with.  

Three of the thirty seedlings had leafed out since they were planted last week.  It hadn't rained more than a trace in that time.  

The garden hose through the window seems to have created a mouse highway - I've trapped two since the start of this stunt.

Lunch was Peanut Butter and Cherry Pie Filling Sandwich.  For dinner I fired up the woodgas stove with pine lumber chunks then pan-fried together a bunch of Italian sausage, tomato, red chard, and lamb's quarters (picked fresh from the crater.)  I also mixed in the last of the solar oven vegetable stew.  

I refueled the stove a couple of times during cooking, and again after, when I put the dutch oven on full of water to heat for dishwashing.

The bike shop is stringing me along on this bike trailer.  First they said last Thursday, then this Monday, now its maybe next week....

Energy Independence Week, Day 3

Sunday July 6, day 3 of Energy Independence Week

Well the batteries got a full solid charge on Saturday, but just running the little compost bin fan overnight brought the voltage down to 12.3.

It only took about half an hour in the solar oven to reheat some leftovers for lunch. The same trick worked at dinnertime, though I left it in longer (6:20-7pm) it wasn't as hot.

Made some steps for cooler.  This 16-foot trough made of two-by's had been sitting behind the house for months.  One time I asked Redbeard, is this like, a thing, or what is the deal?  He said it used to be but go ahead if I had another use for it.  Now I do, so I just sawed it into four pieces with my solar-charged cordless sawzall.  Voila, standing platforms.  

Originally I thought of hinging the icebox lid, but decided I liked being able to open it on any side.  Not bear-proof though.

I'm using these little 6-LED rechargeable lanterns.  But this time of year there's so much daylight you shouldn't need lights much.  

Energy Independence Week, Day 2

Saturday, the 5th of July, and Day 2 of Energy Independence Week.

On Friday and Saturday mornings both, I ate cold cereal for breakfast which I hadn't done in years.  This week I'm cooking only with solar, wood, and charcoal, which isn't as convenient as gas or electricity.  My 50/50 mix of Special K and Crunch Berries hit the spot.

In the morning I mostly worked on my solar electric lashup, which as you see is totally safe and structurally sound.  My panels are mismatched for voltage.  I have a current booster which is designed to downconvert my 72 v panels to 12 v to drive a pump - I was hoping it would be able to charge my 12 v batteries as well, but it didn't.  It ran a car wiper motor okay but just sat there doing nothing when I hooked the battery to its output.

So instead I just connected all the panels directly in parallel with the batteries.  This forces the high voltage panels to operate pretty far from their maximum power point, so about 70% of the power comes from the one little 12v panel.  I was getting about 5 amps peak under hazy skies.  With the panels directly connected they can draw power from the battery if it gets too dark, so I have to watch the ammeter.  I was still getting positive amps at 5:30 pm.

I was hoping to use my little folding solar cell phone charger to run the compost bin fan, but that didn't work so well either.  In full sun it ran about half-speed.

Rain was forecast in the evening so I broke down the solar array and hauled it inside for the night.  It's wired together with cut up pieces of lamp cord and such, no conduits or weathersealing.

Here's my little outdoor kitchen.  Note chimney-style charcoal starter, no lighter fluid allowed.  I grilled up some burgers, zucchini, and portabellas more or less as directed in this week's Green Scene memo.  According to those recipes, the key to grilled vegetables is salt, lots and lots of salt.  

I set the dutch oven on the grill to use the rest of the charcoal to heat some water for dishwashing.

Meanwhile I went down to river for a swim.  There's a nice little park by the dam.  Earlier in the day I had tried to fill the solar shower bag again, but it sprung a leak again in the exact same place where I had fixed it before, so I gave up on that.  

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Energy Independence Day!

Friday, the 4th of July, day 1 of Energy Independence Week

Back on Wednesday morning I got the outside water tank plumbed into the inside via a garden hose through the window.  It isn't high enough to feed the shower head, but there is low pressure water to the sinks and the commode, which is a fine thing.

I spent most of Wednesday and Thursday making the cooler pictured below.  As with the small personal water tower, the cooler is supposed to be useful both for Energy Independence Week and longer term.  For now its an outside icebox replacing the fridge which I don't have enough solar power to run.  Later I hope to use it as a root cellar.

You can see I'm making it out of scrap Structural Insulated Panels (styrofoam faced with oriented strand board.)  They're a foot thick and allegedly R50.  There were three odd-size pieces in the attic of the shop - I spent like an hour figuring out what was the biggest size box I could make out of them.   I ended up with 22 cubic feet on the inside.  On the outside it's basically five feet big.  I made the lid out of three layers of 2-inch pink foam insulation board (polystyrene).  That should be nominally R30.  The whole business is stuck together with Pur Stick professional gun foam.

I could've spent three weeks making this like a grandfather clock but I was desperate to just get it basically functional in time for 4th of July.  The air sealing of the lid needs improvement, and the ergonomics aren't that great.  

It doesn't have a drain, so the ice needs to be contained.  I had previously frozen 13 two-liter bottles of water.  I moved these into the cooler along with the wireless thermometer and tried to freeze some more bottles overnight on the 3rd.  The cooler chilled right down to 35 F by morning, but the new bottles didn't freeze.  In my haste I had bought the cheapest regular soda and hadn't dumped it all out and replaced it with water.   Either there wasn't enough time or maybe the sugar depresses the freezing point?

Anyway, come the morning of the 4th and it was time for power down.  I transferred most of the contents of the fridge in bags and buckets, along with another 30 pounds of block ice.  I ate the ice cream for brunch.  I don't think the temp went over 45 all day.  The meat was still frozen and there was still a lot of ice at the end of the day.  It might go the distance?

As I was washing out buckets at the end of my 250 foot garden hose, I noticed the water was pretty warm even at 9 am sunshine levels.

Some of the food in the fridge was produce that wasn't going to keep much longer, so I broke out the solar oven and made up a recipe.  Potatoes, tomato, celery, baby carrots, red chard, onion, garlic, salt, basil, and a little oil.  

I let it cook from about 11:45 to 3:45.  It was a bit cloudy so I put the reflectors on.  I had some of it for a midafternoon snack, turned out pretty okay.  I put some corn on the cob back in the solar oven and let it cook the rest of the day.  That was really good and went great with the steak I grilled for dinner.  I reheated the vegetables by putting a skillet on top of the charcoal grill.

In the afternoon I worked on hooking up the solar panels.  I'm reluctant to put much drain on the batteries until I have a way to recharge them.  By the time I got it set up it was too late to tell if it was going to work.  I have a current booster for running a 12v motor from my 72v panels, but I don't have a real solar battery charger.  The compost toilet bin really wants its fan to run 24 hours a day.  At this time of year the day is so long here that there isn't that much need for lighting.  

It was a hot day and by night I really wanted a shower.  For that I filled two five gallon buckets from the hose, hauled them into the shower, lifted them up and dumped them on my head, cold turkey (one for wash, one for rinse.)  This was not that bad, but it wasn't that great either.  A little cooler than I'd've liked, but as I say it was a warm day.  Mainly it was just awkward.

Why am I doing this?  Because I read the News of the Future.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Energy Independence Week is here...aaack!

You may remember my call to celebrate Energy Independence Week this 4th of July.  That is:
  • No burning of fossil fuels
  • No using electricity from the grid
  • No trips to the grocery store
This exercise works to increase your preparedness for both random disasters and for the entirely foreseeable low-energy post-fossil-fuel world to come.

I almost punted because neither the solar water heat nor the solar photovoltaic system I was planning to use is built yet.  Also as far as I know I'm just about the only celebrant.  I questioned whether anything useful would be learned or should I postpone my observance.

The real crux of it is the well pump.  Without 460 watts of 230 VAC I don't have running water.  Without 525 watts of 115 VAC I can't flush the toilet, because it's got its own pump-out to the compost bin.  The original plan was to install a solar electric system capable of driving these.  I also greatly desired to be able to take hot showers, and was counting on the solar hot water system being finished.  Nada.

So yesterday I went around to my friends, told them of my troubles, asked for advice.  Miss Twiggy lent me her portable solar camp shower, which is like a black plastic bag you hang in the sun, holds about four gallons.  It had a leak which I fixed with the plastic welder, but even so, it only puts out about as much water as some one pissing on you.  Lame.

Redbeard suggested driving a new sand-point well and putting a hand pump on it.  I wasn't crazy about that because I've seen it done and it's a lot of work.  I finally thought of an alternative I liked better, and that was to go ahead and set up the roof water catchment tank which I had included in the permaculture design, for gravity feeding irrigation water to the gardens.  

There already existed on campus a few 250 and 300 gallon plastic tanks and a platform for holding one up about five feet off the ground, so it would only take a few plumbing fittings and a hose through the window to hook it up to the inside plumbing and get some low-pressure running water, enough to supply the sinks and toilet anyway.  

Also, it turned out I needed irrigation water a lot sooner than I thought, because Flora got a blowout special deal on five hundred hazelnut tree seedlings, which had to be planted right away.  I had in the design an area designated for hazelnut trees but wasn't going to plant any until next year, until these came along.  I said I'd take thirty of them.  

Here is my water tank.  I picked out the prettiest of the 300 gallon totes, one with an intact cage, a lid and a working drain valve. (This solution exhibits the permaculture principles of catching and storing, multiple elements supporting the (water) function, (tank) element has multiple functions, least change for the greatest effect.) It isn't really a rain barrel yet as there's no gutter, but the rules of Energy Independence Week allow stocking up ahead of time, so I half-filled it from the well using dirty old coal-fired electricity.
The platform was so big and heavy and far away I didn't have much choice but to use the Huge Arguably Unnecessary Forklift to put it in place.  I'm trying to get grass and clover growing near the cottage and it annoys me to drive on it.  I had never driven the Lull before but Jolson was kind enough to give me a lesson and wave me off bashing into anything important.  Unfortunately the tank is not high enough to gravity-feed the shower head, or maybe just barely if it was filled all the way up.  It took three adapters to get the two-inch plastic nozzle on the tank down to a garden hose, and I cross-threaded it something awful so it drips a little.

Here is the new hazelnut tree grove, southwest of the cottage.  In spite of my attempt to place them randomly I basically ended up with a three by ten grid.  The seedlings are individually protected from deer browsing with yellow plastic mesh cages staked with bamboo (available from Forestry Supplies of Jackson MS.)  You can see my water hose there which runs 250 feet from above pictured tank.

The lesson here is that even though you never know what's going to happen, its still good to have a design and a phase plan so that as fate throws stuff around you have a better chance of picking out pieces that will fit into some kind of coherent whole.

Thanks to Flora for help with the tree planting.  It did pain me to do so much stomping around in the south experiment plot where the deer forage mix is just starting to come up.  I think I will wait a week before going out there again and mulching the trees.

So that was yesterday; went pretty well.  Today I resolved if only I could get the toilet working off-grid I would go ahead and celebrate Energy Independence Week.  I had earlier purchased a cheapo $60 modified-square-wave 1000 watt inverter for the car, which I figured might just be capable of running the macerator pump.  I decided Hunt Utilities Group needed to trade in a couple of their dead car batteries for brand new Interstate marine deep-cycle batteries, and that furthermore they would not mind if I borrowed them for a week.  

I ran this setup once and it worked so I'm off to the races.  I have a 65 watt 12 volt solar panel I can use to recharge the batteries.  The inverter draws a lot of standby power (10 W) so I don't dare leave it on.  

I spent the rest of the day chasing down plumbing fittings to connect the water tank to the inside piping.  Redbeard gave me an Aquapex lesson.  Tomorrow I'll see how much damage I can do with a little plumbing knowledge.  After that I need to see about a cooler (the original plan was for the fancy PV system to run the fridge too.)  I think I've got enough hardwood charcoal for cooking and heating dishwater.  I have some LED lights.  Trips to the hardware store are allowed during Energy Independence Week as long as you don't drive, so I've ordered a Burley flatbed trailer for my bike.  It'd still be nice to figure out a way to at least get a lukewarm shower...
Postscript:  The terms of Energy Independence Week allow apartment dwellers and other such city mice to celebrate it by spending the week with country mice who will be in a better position to do the off-grid thing, but if you've talked your entire condo association into putting up a wind turbine, "more power to ya."